You Don't Have To Be A Complete Nerd To Love This Novel ... But It Helps
Carrie Vaughn is a speculative-fiction author, but she's just as passionately a fan. Throughout her decades-long career, the Philip K. Dick Award winner and New York Times bestseller has walked it like she's talked it — by appearing at numerous science fiction and fantasy conventions; by advising and teaching up-and-coming spec-fic writers; and by enthusiastically participating in the communities of geeks, cosplayers, and gamers that love her books. Vaughn's immersion in all things nerdy has always underpinned her books, from the werewolf reinvention of her popular Kitty Norville series to the superhero worship of her duology After the Golden Age and Dreams of the Golden Age. With her new novel, Questland, she takes that fandom to the greatest extreme possible: by using Dungeons & Dragons, sci-fi blockbusters, and a multitude of other geek staples as the raw material for a glorious hybrid of mash-up and homage.
Vaughn has always brought a winning clarity to her writing, and Questland is no different.The premise is as basic as it is tantalizing: An eccentric billionaire has designed an island resort-slash-theme park named where visitors will pay big bucks to go on realistic, high-tech adventures that resemble films and games made into synthetic flesh. In essence, well-to-do geeks will be able to live out every fantasy. The novel's protagonist and narrator, the bookish Dr. Addie Cox, becomes enmeshed in a mad scheme to solve a murder and, ultimately, to play for much larger stakes. Meanwhile she must navigate the technological wizardry of the island, an otherworldly place where Arthur C. Clarke's unified field theory of science and magic — that is, the more advanced the former becomes, the more it resembles the latter — has been made wondrously, perilously real.
If this all seems like a pastiche of Michael Crichton's work (particularly Westworld and Jurassic Park) mixed with a little bit of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, well, that wouldn't be an inaccurate starting point. But Vaughn is careful to subvert and transcend the very subjects she's celebrating, rather than slapping them upside the reader's head. "This place was originally supposed to be fun," Addie says to herself after she begins to comprehend the dangers that dwells within her dreamlike fantasy world. It's as meta as Vaughn gets; it's not easy being geeky, she's saying, especially when fan communities in the real world often have their dark sides when it comes to misogyny and intolerance, despite their inclusive ideals. "Fear is the mind-killer," Vaughn writes, quoting the famous refrain from Frank Herbert's Dune (famous, that is, if you're into Dune). She simultaneously uses it as a clever bit of character-building and a reminder of the philosophical heart of science fiction and fantasy — the underlying themes that make so-called escapist entertainment resonate so deeply with millions of people, whether they identify as geeks or not.
At the same time, Questland messes with neither irony nor cynicism. Vaughn executes her swift, action-stuffed tale with the understanding that you can be an ultra-fan of anything while having a bit of fun with the sources of your fandom at the same time — and in fact, the ability to relish the absurdity as well as the awesomeness of D&D or Harry Potter might actually reflect the true spirit of geekdom.
Does the interplay between Arthurian legend and Monty Python make you weak at the knees? Do the words "critical fail" send you into a panic? If so, Vaughn's book is a cornucopia of sly references, winking asides, and not-so-hidden meanings.
But does Questland go overboard with its geek-culture Easter eggs? That all depends on how leveled-up you are. Do the phrases "Cloak of Invisibility" and "Great Dwarf Hall" strike a chord? Does the interplay between Arthurian legend and Monty Python make you weak at the knees? Do the words "critical fail" send you into a panic? If so, Vaughn's book is a cornucopia of sly references, winking asides, and not-so-hidden meanings. Even her handling of the legend of Robin Hood is filtered through Star Trek: The Next Generation's whimsical use of those mythos in the beloved episode "Qpid." Indeed, much of the book feels as though it could take place through the mischievous meddling of an omnipotent alien or in the simulated reality of the Enterprise's holodeck. These layers upon layers of references can, at times, definitely veer toward the impenetrable.
Even a passing familiarity with the mainstream spectacles of, say, The Lord of the Rings or Blade Runner, however, is enough to gain a sufficient foothold in Vaughn's fantasy realm. And if you're unable to hear every one of Questland's dog whistles, that's okay. It's still a pleasure to lose yourself in the story's playfulness, thrills, endearing characters, and surprising emotional core. This is, after all, a novel about how our obsessions can help define us, for better or for worse — and how they can heal us. Vaughn's novel is not just a tribute to its many beloved influences; it's her love letter to the very human and universal need for fandom itself, no matter what it is that we stan.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.
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